It’s no secret that one of the most celebrated actors to reprise their role in Big Finish is Paul McGann as the eighth incarnation of everybody’s favorite Time Lord.
While Big Finish may have redeemed the Sixth Doctor in many fan’s eyes, it is their work on the Eighth Doctor that has cemented the Paul McGann’s incarnation as one of the greats in the eyes of hardcore fans, specifically the ones that are familiar with the Expanded Universe, everywhere. The range of brilliant Eighth Doctor stories produced by Big Finish has gone through many changes over the years. This causes listeners to split his range up into eras, the two most prominent being identified by the main companions.
For the purposes of this article, I shall be referring to them as the “Charley Era” – i.e. starring Charley Pollard (India Fisher) in the Main Range – and the “Lucie Era”, with Sheridan Smith as Lucie Miller. I’ll be looking at three different aspects that each era has. As to how I’ll be deciding which ultimately wins, I’ll be assigning points to the respective eras I believe wins over the other in each category.
I’d also like to put a spoiler warning here as I’ll be discussing some major plot points and character deaths, so if you don’t want to be spoiled, go no further. You’ve been warned.
THE EIGHTH DOCTOR:
In the Charley Era, the Eighth Doctor goes through a major character shift about halfway through. He starts off as a kind, romantic (but not in that kind of way), handsome, young, innocent fellow who, much like the Fifth Doctor, is constantly put down again and again. Seriously, throughout his first two seasons, this guy always leaves the setting with quite a trail of destruction behind him. These adventures are all tied together and eventually lead to him being possessed by an entity known as Zagreus and being betrayed by Rassilon, one of his idols, at the same time. This utterly destroys him, and in the story, Scherzo, we can see that.
While he isn’t as upset as he was after a few stories, he does end up jaded and grumpy. He comes out a bit more cold-hearted and in the end, Charley leaves him for that reason. Once again, he feels utterly crushed.
Though the Lucie Era takes place a while after the Charley stuff depending on what your Doctor Who continuity timeline says, the Doctor is still portrayed as a grumpy guy and even curses out Lucie in their first story together.
Over time, the Doctor warms to his new companion, thrust upon him by the Time Lords, and becomes that fun, kind man he used to be. Unfortunately, because Big Finish can never be happy ever after, again towards the middle of the era, just as he’s been restored to his old self again, Morbius comes back and completely screws him over. Once again, the Doctor becomes grumpy and manipulative, though he doesn’t like to think so. It only gets worse when Lucie leaves him, he finds Tamsin Drew (Niky Wardley), and the Doctor reunites with Susan, his granddaughter, and her son Alex. He becomes obsessed with the idea that Alex will travel around in the TARDIS like he did once he’s gone. All his hopes are shattered, however, when something major happens when they come up against the Daleks in the final story of the Lucie Era, To the Death. After this, we see the Eighth Doctor angrier than ever before and the story basically ends with him flying away in the TARDIS in a state of utter grief.
I feel I should here note that Paul McGann’s acting in both eras is superb. When he’s that furious, it’s terrifying and, of course, sad as McGann does an excellent job delivering those emotions.
While the Doctor does get developed quite a bit in both eras, it’s the Charley Era that really starts that character change in him. It’s what starts that path to the angry Doctor we see time and time again throughout the Lucie Era. The latter really just adds to the reasons that were already present in the Charley Era as to why the Eighth Doctor is angrier throughout the later parts of his life. Sort of like great downloadable content (DLC) to a fantastic video game. Though the DLC is exemplary, it wouldn’t exist without the original game itself if this analogy makes any sense to you.
Anyway, the point here goes to the Charley Era.
COMPANIONS & RECURRING CHARACTERS:
In the Charley Era, there are two companions and a few recurring characters.
Charlotte Elspeth Pollard joins in Paul McGann’s first Big Finish audio as the Doctor titled Storm Warning, released in 2001. Originally a stowaway on the doomed airship, the R101, Charley is rescued by the Doctor and becomes a giant paradox of a human being, causing the web of time to unravel. On her first few adventures with the Doctor, the pair meet up with some old friends and familiar faces including Romana, K9, and Leela as well as the Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Doctors. Coordinator Vansell from The Sirens of Time and The Apocalypse Element returns for one last fight with the Doctor and the Neverpeople in Neverland.
Further into the duo’s travels, while fighting Rassilon in another universe, the pair come across a strange lizard man known as C’rizz (Conrad Westmaas) whose character doesn’t really go anywhere. Yeah, while Charley gets a lot of time to develop into an amazing character and has a great arc that ends with her leaving the Eighth Doctor, C’rizz is sort of half-baked. After the TARDIS crew gets out of the Divergent universe, the writers make it seem like they’re going to continue with the interesting character arc they had going for C’rizz… then they don’t. C’rizz’s story arc basically ends up becoming the Big Finish equivalent of the Series 8 Missy teases at the end of each story. C’rizz dies at the end of Absolution, but all that really does is give Charley a reason to be disgusted with the Doctor and leave in the next story.
In the Lucie Era, there are tons of recurring characters, but much like the Charley Era, only two companions.
Lucie Miller is the first and has two major arcs throughout. The first arc is limited to the first season only. She seems to randomly appear in the Doctor’s TARDIS at the beginning of Blood of the Daleks because of the Time Lords. We don’t actually find out the reason why until Human Resources. The second arc begins in Horror of the Glam Rock and actually takes us all the way to the finale. We meet Lucie’s aunt, Pat, then see her fall in love with a man who turns out to be a Zygon in The Zygon Who Fell to Earth. After Pat dies for the Zygon, the Zygon stays on Earth and permanently transforms into the form of Pat, only telling the Doctor. Lucie eventually finds out and leaves, then comes back, then leaves again, then decides she wants to come back – but tragedy hits before she can.
The second companion, Tamsin, is really only there as a plot device to further Lucie’s second arc. The recurring characters throughout these stories include the Headhunter, Karen Coltraine, the Monk, Susan Campbell, Alex Campbell, and Tamsin Drew.
While the Charley Era has a pretty decent cast of recurring characters, the Lucie Era has an outstanding cast of recurring characters. Every character, save Karen and Tamsin, is absolutely amazing. It’s great to hear Susan again, played once more by Carole Ann Ford; Alex, played by Paul McGann’s son, Jake, is probably the best great grandson the Doctor could have gotten in terms of character; the Monk is portrayed by Graeme Garden which makes him instantly brilliant; and so on so forth. The Lucie Era definitely gets the point for this category.
The stories in the Charley Era are formatted like the traditional Classic Doctor Who format; 4 x 30-minute episodes with the occasional 6-parter. The stories themselves are from a time when Big Finish was experimenting with different types of stories. This led to mind-bending tales like Scherzo and The Natural History of Fear. The first season of the Charley Era plays it safe, no experiments yet. The second season has a couple experimental stories such as The Chimes of Midnight and Embrace the Darkness, a story that only works on audio. The 40th anniversary special, Zagreus, is so experimental, continuity-heavy and mind-bending, that I won’t say any more about it.
The third and fourth seasons form one gigantic experiment which remains a very divisive time for the audio range. And the fifth season really just ties up loose ends left hanging open. The stories in this Era also go darker and a bit more graphic than the Lucie Era.
The Lucie Era takes a more modern structure, with the first two seasons of stories being 1 x 50-minute episode stories with an occasional 2 x 50-minute episode story. The third and fourth season each consisted of 2 x 25-minute stories.
The stories themselves are more family-friendly than the ones in the Charley Era. While this doesn’t make the stories terrible, they follow a more standard format and aren’t as experimental as the stories in the Charley Era. The stories here have larger patches of multiple stories that are good back to back, though none of them – except for The Zygon Who Fell to Earth, Sisters of the Flame, The Vengeance of Morbius, Lucie Miller, and To the Death – are particularly amazing or mind-blowing. For the most part, the Lucie Era plays it safe, unlike the riskier stories in the Charley Era.
The point here goes to the Charley Era. The Lucie Era, though on a whole good, isn’t surprising. Most of the stories in it have similar formats to ones seen before, while the Charley Era takes the familiar four-part format and weaves interesting new types of stories into it such as The Natural History of Fear. I use The Natural History of Fear here because in terms of story structure there isn’t another Doctor Who story like it.
In contrast, even the best of the best and the worst of the worst stories in the Lucie Era all have structures that have been used before and many of the major twists and turns you can see coming as they’ve been done before. I give the Charley Era the winning the point because it reaches out of Doctor Who‘s comfort zone and tests new waters while the Lucie Era stays inside the comfort zone and pretty much never explores new waters at all.
This is difficult because I actually really enjoy both Eras. I just prefer the stories and the way the Doctor is handled in Charley Era.
However, in the end, the question which of these Eras is better is a matter of preference: do you prefer safer stories with a slightly angrier Doctor, or braver, more experimental tales in which Paul McGann’s incarnation of the Time Lord develops more?